Singer, singing, and success with Rob Dickinson

Being in the presence of genius can be an intimidating, talking to Singer Vehicle Design’s impresario, Rob Dickinson, comes naturally. We got the chance to catch up with the man behind the incredible Porsche 911 restorations to talk about the success of his vision:

Total 911: You founded in 2009, what was your impetus for starting the business?
Rob Dickinson: I just had a desperate idea that we could restore old 911s in such a way that people would like them, modifying it in such a way that breathed new life into it, and celebrated the air-cooled era.

With a clean slate, and a reasonably open cheque book, we could attempt to optimise every element of the car. I was so convinced I managed to persuade people to give me some money to build a car that demonstrated our ideas; that was the orange car that we showed in 2009 at Pebble Beach

What first drew you towards the Porsche 911?
I’ve been obsessed and haunted by the 911 since I was five. I was introduced to it on a wind-swept autoroute in the south of France in 1970 by my father. We were travelling along in our VW Beetle on holiday and he pointed out this 911 and I’ve been smitten ever since.

It was purely Porsche 911 led this thing. It wasn’t like, ‘Oh, I want to start a company’. I had some 911s in England that I sold when I moved to America, and I funded my own special hot rod build here in 2003.

The Brown Bomber: the inspiration for Singer Vehicle Designs.
The Brown Bomber: the inspiration for Singer Vehicle Designs.

The Brown Bomber?
Yes, that’s the Bomber. That was my daily driver in Hollywood for five or six years and that car got a huge amount of attention. A lot of people wanted to buy it. That car convinced me that I could come up with a car that looked a certain way and would push a lot of emotional buttons in people.

Modded classic 911s have gained a lot of credence in recent years. Do you feel you’ve played a role in changing people’s perceptions?
You probably know I’m not very good at offering short answers! I really don’t know. It’s probably for other people to decide. For me it was kind of, if I don’t do this, someone else is going to do this, because it’s such an obviously good idea, to me.

It’s certainly not revolutionary or original (I certainly don’t pretend the concept of what we’re doing here is revolutionary) as restored and modified cars have been around for many years.

Maybe we have taken it to its logical zenith, especially with the 911, and that was enabled because we knew that the services that would result in the car would be unavoidably expensive.

We embraced immediately the sense that, if this is going to be done properly, and when I say ‘properly’ I mean every single fucking millimetre of the car would be evaluated. ‘Do we just leave well enough alone here, or can improve this?’

LA is the perfect location of Singer, explains Dickinson.
LA is the perfect location of Singer, explains Dickinson.

Do you think part of the company’s success is its base in LA?
California and LA has a huge amount to do… This car is definitely a product of California. I don’t think I could have thought this was possible anywhere else in the world, certainly not in England.

I think everything that drew me here, to California, had a lot (unknowingly) to do with this project. That clichéd, but very true, ‘can do’ spirit is extremely important to me. I’m surrounded by positive vibes.

Most importantly though, there is access to world-class engineering and prototyping here. With all the major car manufacturers having major design studios here in Southern California, it has bred a huge network of artisans and craftsman that we have access to.

Is it your perfectionism that makes Singer so successful?
Our work makes a big statement. We hoped it would, that was kind of the whole point of it. Building a car that looks a certain way, was executed and built like a Rolex, but also went down the road, hopefully, like the best road 911 anyone has ever driven were our three goals.

Over the three or four years that we are discussing, I think we have managed to communicate to the world, through third parties (not ourselves) that our work hits those three targets.

Without the internet, without people like Jay Leno (all these fantastic people who’s opinions are trusted by the automotive world community) who have said that our shit is actually really good, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

Perfectionism is the order of the day in the Singer workshop.
Perfectionism is the order of the day in the Singer workshop.

Where does the name ‘Singer’ come from?
We had an early meeting to discuss this project with a very good friend of mine called Hayden Burvill, who runs WEVO in Northern California. He suggested that any rough mule that we came up with to test our ideas needed a name, and if we had a mule we should it ‘Norbert’ after Norbert Singer.

I don’t like ‘Norbert’, I thought it might be offensive, but I did like ‘Singer’ because that made some sense. I liked the relevance of the whole point of this thing celebrating the air-cooled flat six, which has a definite note, or song and, of course, I was the singer in a band for years.

I was wondering if it was something to do with Catherine Wheel…
Yeah, it was a little bit. That was certainly in there.

Apparently, Norbert Singer gets asked if this is his company. I’ve heard he gets thoroughly pissed off about it. If I ever meet Norbert, I probably owe him a huge apology!

To read all about the incredible work Singer perform on tired Porsche 964s, pick up a copy of Total 911 issue 109 for our behind-the-scenes look at their Californian workshop, available online or to download straight to your digital device.

Photo by Drew Phillips
Photo by Drew Phillips

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